“Who’s Absent ?” Being AWOL in World War One — language, identity, and the “absentee”

who's absente
Parlamentary Reecruiting Poster No.125; Imperial War Museum

http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/27747

Language is full of apparently incidental words which nevertheless – given the right circumstances – can find themselves freighted with highly topical meaning. Absentee is a case in point. Used in general to indicate the position of ‘(someone) who is absent from (something)’ as well as in special constructions such as absentee landlord, it would, across the World War One, prove an intriguingly mobile word, being diversified in range and connotation, as well as tapping into prominent discourses of participation and their moral (and gendered) coding

Absentee, was, for example, already an established part of military discourse as war began. For a soldier, being an ‘absentee without leave’ (our modern AWOL) was a chargeable offence. ‘Soldier’s Fatal Fall’ heads, for example, what now appears a somewhat suspicious narrative (in 1915) of the apprehending – and subsequent death – of an absentee of precisely this kind:

Worried by the condition of his wife’s health, a private of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment tramped from Salisbury to Birmingham to see her. He was arrested, taken to Portsmouth as an absentee without leave, and ordered detention in barracks. While in the cell he climbed to a high shelf, and refused to descend. When the doctor was called subsequently he fell, fracturing his spine, and died at the military hospital on Thursday as a result of the fall. A verdict of accidental death was returned at the inquest.

Absentee from Edinburgh’s Battalion Arrested’, heads a similar article in February 1915, detailing the case of William Lloyd who ‘was yesterday charged as an Army absentee’. In both, the negative sense is all too clear; being an absentee was firmly proscribed. Whether this could, or should, be deemed in WW1 a case of ‘French leave’  — ‘in military contexts … to escape or take flight; to desert, to take absence without leave’, as the OED explainsnevertheless served to raise other issues given the dynamics of language, and language attitudes, in a time of war. Surely this should be termed ‘German leave’, the presiding magistrate on one such case exclaimed:

You must not say “French leave” now. It is too good a name for so discreditable an action. You must call it “German leave.”

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“War of terror”: “terror” and “reprisal” in 1916

zeppelins 1916
Awaiting Zeppelins. Sandringham, 1915.

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2493) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/13527

 

THE NEW WAR OF TERROR. IS BRITAIN NO LONGER AN ISLAND?

MAILED FIST IN THE AIR.

The heading above appeared in the Daily Express in February 1916. Like 9/11, and the emergence of the modern “war on terror”, perceptions of this ‘new war of terror’ in 1916 were prompted by a series of aerial attacks in civilian locations. While WW1, by 1916, was indeed a ‘world war’ in hitherto unprecedented ways, it was the victims of German aerial warfare in British towns along the east coast, in Kent, and in the Midlands which prompted anxiety of this kind. The language of ‘terror’ was marked. While war zone is itself a coinage of WW1 (dated to 1914 in the Oxford English Dictionary, it is  widely documented across the Words in War-Time archive), it was clear by 1916 that systemetic attack could occur outside formal theatres of war. Conflict of this kind instead consolidated the sense of what we know now as total war. As the article continued:

The governing condition of our national life during about the last four hundred years – that is, since naval power became our principal defence, has been the circumstance that Britain was an island, which strength at sea could defend … Britain is, quite manifestly, ceasing to be an island, and though strength at sea does still protect her from serious invasion, and may continue to do so for some years to come, that strength is powerless to defend us against aerial attack.

In war in the air, geographical boundaries were easily transcended; the ‘mailed fist’ could, as in the headline above,  hover at will above London or Lowestoft, Dover or Deal. ‘Henceforth no non-combatant will be immune from attack’, the writer added. Here, too, language and (re)definition could be at stake. As recent events confirmed, combat and non-combatants could intersect with deadly effect, rendering civilians  remote from the field of battle into direct casualties of war.

The language of terror – phrased with particular acuity in 1916 –can, in fact, be traced from the beginning of the war, whether in analysis of the Kaiser’s ‘power to terrorise’ (in September 1914) or in comment on the emergence of new weapons of destruction which Continue reading